Nora Ephron remembers nothing. I remember nothing in my refrigerator. Why do I have so many carrots?
At the market, in the carrot aisle, I say (to myself), “you should eat more carrots” or “it's cold outside, why not braise something (with carrots)” or “how about making those Spicy Carrot Macaroons…” (Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies, page 164). Then, having NOT eaten carrots, braised anything, or made macaroons, I'm flush with carrots, bags and bags of them.
While I can’t remember if I have carrots, I can remember the carrot torte that I made from the 1948 Settlement Cookbook when I was 15. It was certainly not the cake you are thinking of, with the oil and walnuts and crushed pineapple and spices all slathered with cream cheese frosting. It was a torte. Sophisticated. European. It was all ground almonds, grated carrots, eggs. It had no baking powder or soda and not a speck of flour! You had to separate those eggs and proceed as though making a real sponge cake, folding stiffly beaten eggs whites into the whole business at the end. I had never eaten or even heard of such a torte, but I made one that day in the large aluminum angel food pan that lived (though rarely used) in our kitchen. The batter rose beautifully (see, I do remember the 60’s) and then collapsed tragically. The golden brown edges, slightly crusty yet chewy, were still clinging to the sides of the pan but the moist center was caved in. I leaned against our grey Formica counter contemplating, meanwhile exploring (as anyone would have) the chewy and gooey parts of the cake with a fork. I must have been wondering what went wrong and what to do next. Did I scoop it out and serve the yummy stuff to the family with great dollops of whipped cream and confidence? Or did I nibble a bit too much of it myself and then chalk it up to failure? That I don’t remember. But the torte has been in the back of my mind ever since.
Today, reading the recipe I could surmise that I under-baked the original and perhaps overbeat the egg whites too. Who knows what my skills were at 15? Presuming an experienced baker, the recipe offers no more than a paragraph of instruction. I could fix that!
To begin, the recipe calls for grated cooked carrots. Surely I could get better color and brighter flavor if I skipped the cooking step and just let the carrots cook in the torte. However, I smartly decided to squeeze the daylights out of the raw grated carrots to remove excess juice, as there would be no flour to absorb extra moisture. It's a shame to remove such delicious liquid, but no one likes a soggy carrot torte! And the baker rewards herself with that bonus shot of fresh carrot juice anyway. My first try was clearly on the right track. But it wasn’t quite the torte of memory. To my taste today, it needed more salt, more orange zest, a little cinnamon, a nuance of almond extract to compensate for (heat processed, salmonella-safe) less flavorful almonds, plus a slightly more detailed mixing method, just in case a less-experienced-but-ambitious young baker might want to try it.
Voila! It’s now as delicious as I want to remember it: still a little crusty chewy on the outside with a moist, nubbly, flavorful, slightly macaroon-like interior.
CARROT ALMOND TORTE
For such an old school recipe, it’s amusing to know how many pieces of electric equipment I managed to use here: two mixers and a food processor! But I used my trusty old French 1970’s hand crank Mouli to grate the carrots!
8 ounces (1 1/2 cups) whole almonds, skins and all
7 ounces (1 cup) sugar, divided
8 ounces (2 cups) lightly packed finely grated peeled carrots
1 medium organic or unsprayed orange
4 large eggs, separated and at room temperature
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon (slightly rounded) ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Unsweetened whipped cream (with a little vanilla if you like)
8=inch spring form pan with sides buttered or greased
A hand-held mixer and a stand mixer, if possible
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees with a rack in the lower third.
In the food processor, pulse the almonds with 2 tablespoons of sugar until the nuts are very finely ground. Set aside.
Stack three or four paper towels on the counter. A handful at a time, squeeze the grated carrots hard, over a bowl (if you plan to sip the juice) to extract as much juice as possible. Put each handful of squeezed carrots in the center of the paper towels until all are squeezed. Gather the edges of the towels up around the carrots and squeeze some more. (Or, see my next post about using a citrus squeezer or potato ricer to do this job). Set aside.
Use a micro plane zester to grate the zest of the orange directly into a large mixing bowl. Add the egg yolks, salt, cinnamon, and almond extract. Set aside 2 more tablespoons of sugar before adding the remaining 3/4 cup to the bowl. Beat the mixture with a hand held electric mixer or with a wire whisk for 1 or 2 minutes until it is thick and lightened in color. Sprinkle the grated carrots into the bowl, but don’t mix them in.
In the (clean dry) bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, combine the egg whites and cream of tartar. Beat on medium/medium high speed until the whites are white (rather than translucent yellow) and hold a soft shape. Gradually sprinkle in the reserved two tablespoons of sugar, beating at high speed until the egg whites are stiff but not dry. Scrape one quarter of the egg whites on top of the carrots and batter. Use a large rubber spatula to fold the whites and carrots into the batter. Scrape the remaining egg whites into the bowl and pour the ground almonds over and around them. Fold the egg whites and almonds into the batter. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and spread the surface level.
Bake for 45-50 minutes until the surface of the torte is golden brown and just beginning to separate from the sides of the pan and the torte springs back when you press it gently with a finger. Cool the torte in the pan, on a rack. Slide a slim knife or spatula around the sides of the torte to detach it from the pan and remove the sides of the pan. Slide a knife between the cake and the bottom of the pan to detach it. Use a metal pancake turner to transfer the cake to a serving plate. Slice and serve with dollops of whipped cream.